Thoughts on Shell Oil’s Arctic Oil Spill Containment Barge, the Arctic Challenger

8:46 pm in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

Arctic Challenger 1982 color adj.

Above is a drawing I made thirty years ago today.

It was drawn in Chatham Strait in Southeast Alaska, as the Crowley Maritime tugboat Sea Giant towed the Arctic Challenger from Elliot Bay in Seattle to Prudhoe Bay.  At the time, I was working as a deck hand on the Sea Giant.  Below is a drawing I made then of the Sea Giant.

Sea Giant 1982

The Arctic Challenger was built in 1977, to perform as an icebreaking barge during the Sealift operations that saw the construction of the Prudhoe Bay oil production facilities and infrastructure.  Crowley Maritime’s history page notes:

In the late 1970s Crowley added to its fleet the Arctic Challenger, a 310-by-105-foot icebreaker barge

The Arctic Challenger could haul freight, but its main purpose was to plow through the ice between Wainwright and Prudhoe Bay, should ice conditions warrant that.

Sea Giant and Arctic Challenger 1982

Near the bow there was a tall tower from which the “Ice Captain” was supposed to be able to spot leads in the ice, along with the help of spotter aircraft.  In the stern there were two notches.  They were designed to fit the bows of two 7,000 HP-class Crowley tugs.

Although the Arctic Challenger was not needed as an icebreaker in 1982, it had been tried in that role earlier, and was found to be poorly designed.  It didn’t draw a lot of water – 4.1 feet empty – so, after having been broken by the bows,  ice would creep along underneath the hull and ultimately foul the props and rudders of the propelling tugs.  Not good when you’re 3,000 miles from Seattle.

Crew members of towing tugs had been injured over the five years since the barge’s completion, and it was not considered to be a “good luck” barge in fleet scuttlebutt. It never really found a niche after the Sealifts were over.  It languished, being shuttled from Seattle to the Gulf of Mexico to Coos Bay, Oregon, where it stayed for a long time.

A 2008 blog entry by an Oregon blogger erroneously stated that the Arctic Challenger was “being scrapped out.”  I think the boat then being scrapped was an old Bering Sea trawler of the same name, but the blog entry gave a good picture of the barge:

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KTOO radio recently published a photo that may be confusing or inaccurate.  It shows a vessel which is not the Arctic Challenger overshadowing a barge which may be the Arctic Challenger under reconstruction in Bellingham, Washington:

Billingham-ship-1024x767

The Arctic Challenger is what Shell Oil claims will be their Arctic oil spill response unit.  They are not joking.

Here is an artist’s conception of what it might look like if and when they finish revamping this loser dockside queen:

la-na-nn-arctic-challenger-20120719-001

Essentially, what you see here is a storage shed with really thick walls at the waterline.  It has never been powered, and none of the new articles about construction delays mention it as being anything more than a barge.  So, as an oil spill response vehicle, it is useless unless configured with its tugboat power.

Unless the problems associated with the hull shape have been addressed, what we will probably see when Shell Oil inevitably spills oil in the Chukchi or Beaufort Seas will be a crew urged on by their bosses to go faster, cramming ice under the barge and into the power sources of the tug, fouling and bending the running gear.

Unless the problems associated with the hull shape have been addressed, the vessel should not be certified by the Coast Guard for Shell’s contemplated use.

I don’t think any of the reporters who have covered the Arctic Challenger have looked very closely at the hulk’s history, or interviewed anyone who has ever worked the rig in any of its previous incarnations.